Fall Cleaning

It’s that time of year where all the bugs are at their most visibly industrious. Spiders weave vast and complicated webs every night outside, and fill the undusted corners of the house (so, all the corners) with messy spun-sugar looking masses. Hummingbirds fattening up for migration vie for the feeders with European hornets as large as they are. Crickets, some kind of little black beetle, ladybugs, and ALL the stink bugs suddenly want to come in to the house. I want to open all the windows to the glorious fall weather, but that means I am also opening them to the bugs to find all the gaps in the screens and the windowframes. I don’t love sharing my house with bugs, but most of all I don’t love sharing my bed with them – or my clothes. Stink bugs seem to be the only bugs who think that’s a good idea and as usual at this time of year I am puzzled as to why.

The bugs, if they are paying attention to me, may be equally puzzled by the purpose of my version of autumnal industry. I’m having an organizing spree, so far split between the basement (where I work, and therefore where the dogs and I spend most of our days), and two outbuildings which have both partially housed horse equipment, garden tools, and hay, and which I am converting to one single-purpose tack barn and one single-purpose hay barn. I guess that makes three outbuildings, as I am also moving the gardening tools and anything else that doesn’t belong in any of these three catagories to the horse barn, which has not housed horses since we put in the run-in sheds a dozen or more years ago.

Though I am making dump runs in all of this – it’s amazing how often we seem to decide we aren’t going to use something any more and instead of getting rid of it we put it on a shelf – but I’m trying to moderate my default organizing method which I call “throw it all away.” This means that, to the inconvenience of the spiders and stink bugs and crickets, and to the bemusement of the dogs, I am taking things off shelves, cleaning the shelves, moving the shelves to another place, and then putting things back on the shelves. Not always the same shelves, or the same things, as I move items from one space to another, but I imagine the finer points are lost on the bugs. As far as the dogs are concerned, the main benefit to this is that I may occasionally unearth a lacrosse ball or other forgotten toy.

I’m also trying to moderate getting lost in the minutiae of what I’m organizing. I’m throwing away obvious trash, but not otherwise going through things in a lot of detail, because if I start that I know I’ll just wind up sitting on the floor looking at old photographs and notes from when the kids were little, and the basement will continue to look like the aftermath of a fairly gentle earthquake. And I will not – NOT – start cleaning tack in the tack barn. Yet.

Occasionally I find something that is useful and that I know we will no longer use, and then I put it up for sale online. Sometimes (as with a meat grinder I just sold), this involves digging for parts in multiple cabinets, and also looking for owner’s manuals. Last night I was looking for a manual before listing another item. We have a very orderly drawer with file folders for each appliance, up to a point. We also have a cabinet in the kitchen with a pile of stuff in it, and sometimes this is where the manuals for kitchen appliances end up. In my search last night, I did not find the manual I was looking for, though when I put the appliance in question back in its cabinet after photographing it for the add, I saw that the manual was there already. What I did find was the manual for my old LG flip phone, which I used from roughly 2005-2011, a book on deck-building, a recipe for Amish cinnamon bread from my youngest child’s elementary school (she just turned 31), three versions of the recipe for my mother’s truffles (one in my writing and two in hers), a recipe also in my mother’s writing for Truly Awful Cake (I’ve been making this cake for over thirty years and only just discovered it’s supposed to be made in a bundt tin), and what will have to be the lead recipe for my food blog, Mystery Recipes. This recipe reads in its entirety:

2 c. flour
2 c. sugar
3/4 c. cocoa
1 t b powder
1/2 t salt
1 c water
3/4 c oil
1 t vanilla
2 T coffee
350
dry
add wet
15 min (or less)

There’s no title, and no reference to a pan or a shape or a number. It can’t be brownies, because that’s way too much flour, and it can’t be cake, because of the baking time. It doesn’t say anything about forming cookies, though that’s my current best guess. I figure for my food blog I can just post the recipes as I wrote them, and then see how many different food products can be made from the ingredients and method (such as it is). Prizes for the most edible result.

Prior to this mystery recipe I had thought my version of the truffle recipe, jotted down in a conversation with my mother 20 or 30 years ago, was my most cryptic. This one at least says “truffles” at the top, and if the method is abbreviated (and it is – it consists of the following two lines:
“choc, butter – double boiler
add etc – wisk – cool – toss”)
at least I have made them enough that *I* know what I am talking about (even if I apparently don’t know how to spell “whisk”). More puzzling to me is how I wound up with two versions of the recipe in my mother’s handwriting. One of them is probably the original. It is covered with chocolate – one’s hands get very chocolatey while shaping the truffles and coating them in cocoa, and it has notes in three different pens. “Florence’s truffles” is squinched in at the tops as an afterthought in a green felt tip ink. We all think of these as my mother’s truffles, but the recipe came from a friend from her job at the Renwick. The recipe is, in the main, written in blue ball point, and abbreviated (though not as abbreviated as my version). Clarifying notes (“about a teaspoon” next to “rum brandy or vanilla,” and “with cocoa in bag” next to “toss”) are in black felt tip. I can see the exact pens in my mind – my father was forever bring home bags of pens from which finding one that worked was like a much less deadly but more annoying form of Russian roulette – and I recognize each of these inks and the pens they came from. The other one is written on a post card of Bolinas Bay, which doesn’t really give me any clues about the time frame. This one contains the instruction “leave in icebox overnight” and now I’m trying to remember when the last time was that I heard someone call a fridge an icebox, and if it was something my parents stopped saying at some point. For some reason it makes me a little sad to think they did.

The strangest thing about my mother’s two Florence’s Truffles recipes and her Truly Awful Cake recipe is that I have no idea how they got into my cabinet of random papers. I’m quite sure she didn’t give them to me, so they must have been something I chose to keep from her things after she died. Or possibly even after my father died seven years after her: maybe they were in her desk, for some odd reason, or maybe they were still in the kitchen. I have no recollection of finding them or choosing them. Indeed, as far as I can recall, last night was the first time I saw any of them.

I have never had a dream about my mother since she died, and aside from sensing her strongly when I have gone to Wolf Trap, I don’t feel her presence very often. Still, she shows up in ways that are very her. One of the few things I do remember keeping from her things is a t-shirt from the National Zoo for their Boo in the Zoo Halloween event. Eight years after she died, I grabbed it one night to wear as a night shirt, and found after turning off the light that it glows in the dark. These recipes of hers seem like another of her little surprises. It’s not quite truffle season yet – they are a thing we make at Christmas time, though they are not at all Christmasy. Just a tradition, of which we had precious few as a family. I like having her company while I continue my organizing. And I appreciate the reminder that some things I will never get rid of.

Quiet

I woke up this morning to the sound of gunshots, or possibly firecrackers – I’m not much of a weapons expert. My limited experience using guns is target shooting with a .22 rifle at camp, using air rifles at the arcade, and once shooting a shotgun towards a sick fox that was hanging around the barn where I worked and I believe he died of surprise. There was a lot wrong with him, I could see when I went to dispose of the body, but I couldn’t swear that shot pellets were on the list. While I took the dogs out this morning before breakfast, the rapid fire that woke me up changed to what I think of as my neighbor’s cannon, though it’s probably a standard hunting gun and it’s probably some kind of hunting season here now that fall has arrived. I heard a weird gronking noise and thought “Goose? No. Maybe something injured?” and then looked down towards the misty reservoir in time to see a disgruntled great blue heron flying off to look for a quieter spot for his morning fishing.

Life in the country is only quiet compared to life in the city. There’s a lot less human-made noise here, but between a large year round population of Canada geese on the reservoir next door and the rotating seasonal chorus of mockingbirds and crows, crickets and cicadas, peepers and tree frogs, migrating swans, barking foxes – well, it’s rarely what I would call quiet. It’s the human sounds that tend to irk me the most, although I admit to days I want to yell back at the geese. I count my neighbor’s dog, who I also want to yell back at, among the human sounds. We don’t live in sight of any roads, but we can hear when someone is driving too fast on our road, and if there’s a loud vehicle on one of the bigger, farther away roads, we can hear it. We can also hear a steady background hum of traffic on the bigger roads during what passes for rush hour here.

There’s something notable about the kind of quiet that happens when one of the regular human sounds lessens or stops. Last year during the height of the covid restrictions, the absence of traffic sounds was noticeable, and it was something of a novelty to be able to walk down the driveway and across the road to get our mail without ever seeing a car. We moved here in 2001, and I didn’t realize how quickly we had acclimated to the planes flying in and out of the local airport until they stopped completely that September. That local airport is now regional, and there are a few more planes than there used to be, but I mostly only notice them when they are particularly loud, either because they are flying lower than usual or more directly over our property than usual; particularly unusual, as happens each October when there’s an airshow that I forget about every year until a B17 bomber flies over my house; or when they go suddenly quiet in mid-air, which I hope only happens during lessons when someone is learning to come out of a stall.

Having grown up in the city, I hardly notice sirens unless they are close or many, but certain sirens make our dogs start up their chorus, with Scout holding the steady melody in either a tenor or soprano range, depending on his mood, Boo chiming in with the baritone harmony, and Quinn doing some kind of coloratura soprano jazz scat that only he understands. The dogs respond similarly to certain trains, though not all trains. I usually don’t hear the trains unless I have the windows open – the nearest track is over a mile away – but there are some evening trains that do not inspire the dogs, and a 5:15 a.m. train that always does (though it does not always go through on time, so I can’t use that particular song as an alarm clock).

It’s an unusual kind of quiet inside the house these days because Rose is in Colorado, visiting our oldest and youngest children and getting some much needed Colorado time, and probably also some much needed away time. When we first moved here, we were both working jobs in actual offices away from the house. A few years later, we both started working from home, but in jobs or consulting positions that had us traveling a week at a time multiple times a year. My last work trip was a two week stint in the second half of February 2020, and since then of course we have both been home. Rose went out to visit the kids (and Colorado) last summer also, but aside from a few days where I did the same this past May, and a couple of short trips Rose has taken with one of her sisters, we’ve both just been here. All the time. Right now it’s just me, and this weekend I’ve noticed how much more quiet the quiet gets when you know the person that’s gone can’t even try to communicate with you because Rose is camping in the cell-signal-free mountains. It’s odd, because it’s not as if we talk every day when we are not in the same place, but we probably do communicate daily in some way – text, facebook comments, instagram messages – or maybe it’s just knowing that we can. This quiet is different.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about my father, and my brother-in-law, and my friend Elaine’s husband Mark, each in their resoundingly quiet homes after their spouse died. One of the very few conversations I can remember having with my father in my lifetime that had any emotional content was when he told me that he still talked to my mother – out loud – after she died, and that he felt it was just as real a conversation as when she had been physically present. Of course, having known both of my parents, I can take that cynically or I can take it with empathy. In this case, I choose empathy. The quiet that falls after someone who has been sharing your life and home for decades is suddenly gone forever must be deafening.

None of my beloved people who have died were living in the same house as me when they died, so their absence for me is a different kind of silence – the kind when there’s no longer anyone there to answer the phone. My animals, though – I’m sure that’s one of the reasons their deaths hit as hard as they do. They are a daily presence, and they leave a gaping hole. And I do talk to them, though not necessarily out loud. I especially still talk to the horses. We have buried five horses here, and I find reason to talk to each of them sometimes as I make my daily rounds. As with my living horses, I’m learning to be quieter in my conversations. The living horses let me know when I’m making improvements. The are reminding me now that when I don’t have anyone who responds with speech when I talk to them (except Quinn, but only when it involves putting his dinner bowl down, or going out to play), I’m quieter in general, and they prefer that. I’m sure Rose will be grateful if I can keep it up when she returns; quiet is not an adjective anyone would use to describe me. I haven’t even been listening to music, so I’m in a fairly constant state of listening to nothing but the sounds of what – and who – is here right now, and the quiet of what – and who – is not.

Perspective

Looking through my recent photographs, I see that I’ve been trying to see from different perspectives this summer. Lots of looking up through things, looking at the back of things, extreme close ups. Views from the perspective of what the thing I’m photographing is looking at, or would be looking at if it had eyes. I’m tired of my own point of view. I’m tired, period. Tired of all the things. My approach to work looks like my high school approach to term papers: wait until the last possible minute for no good reason and then cram in everything I need to do that felt overwhelming but turns out not to be hard at all, except for the adrenaline rush of the almost-missed deadline. I am getting chores done – all humans and animals are fed and reasonably cleaned up after, bills are paid. I listen to podcasts sometimes, but that’s basically a chore, and I spend much of my podcast-listening time composing rebuttals to whatever the person I’m supposed to be inspired by said that annoyed me.

What I’m not getting done is non-chores. What do we call that – fun? Creativity? Relaxation? I’m not listening to music. I’m not writing. I don’t even want to read. I mean, not really, because that’s crazy talk, but I’ve been rereading rather than reading new books. Which is fine, and something I always do somewhat, but for at least the last six months if not a year, I have read hardly any new books, which is unusual. Unusual isn’t a strong enough word. I did read a new book this week (thank you, Laura Lippman, for always being able to keep my attention), and in it the writer who is the main character is talking to his editor, who says that if he ever sees certain words in the writer’s manuscript he will know it’s a secret message to alert him that the writer is in trouble. In his case it was words like limn, or saying good things about Wuthering Heights. In my case, “I don’t want to read” is pretty close to that kind of cry for help.

Not that I am being held hostage, other than the way we all still feel one degree or another of stuck at home these days, and the fact that I can’t seem to make myself stop looking at social media even while declaring how much I hate it (and I do, increasingly, hate it). There are things I haven’t done for a year and a half that I don’t miss at all (any form of public transit), and there are things I have very mixed feelings about not doing (work travel), and things I have been grateful for (not having to respond to invitations to – well, anything).

Now that I think of it, this one book that held my attention is, in many ways, about perspective. As I was reading it, I thought “This doesn’t sound like Laura Lippman.” Then I noticed she was writing in third person, but a very close third that had made me think for a while it was first person, so basically she’s writing in third person but more or less from inside her main character’s point of view. But then I realized that maybe it’s another character’s view of the main character’s point of view. And then someone else came into the picture. It sounds needlessly complicated, but it reminds me of how things are right now (or maybe always). Most things that are being presented as objective are anything but. Perspectives are skewed but no one wants to look at any other perspective, or at their own bias. My way of dealing with that seems to be to decrease my intake even more, and now I’m basically hibernating. Or estivating, as I once heard it called when it’s a summer time rest, and even if that’s not a real thing I still like the word, and the idea that there may be a name for it in every season.

What I miss most isn’t even a thing, it’s a feeling: joy. Being around my dogs brings me something like joy, but it’s closer to peace. Same with the horses. I don’t know what people do who don’t have animals in their lives. Animal perspective is the best perspective, if I’m looking for other views: views of time (always now), of what matters (staying alive, dinner, belly rubs, ear scritches), of staying home (the pack is together!).

Last week Rose and I decided to make a getaway. We went to the beach for the first time in we actually can’t remember when. Four years? Six? We were only away for a few days, and mostly we sat and relaxed. On the second day, we took advantage of staying with an Airbnb host who does boat tours, and we went out with him for a sunset boat ride. If I can’t remember the last year I went to the beach, I can’t even recall the last decade in which I was on a boat. We were staying on a creek that connects to the Chesapeake Bay, and in order to get where he wanted to take us – to a disappearing island that is used by many kinds of birds as a nighttime resting spot, and in time for sunset – our host had to put the hammer down. I can’t promise Marie Kondo that anything in my closet will ever spark joy, but speeding along the water in a place where we could not see the shore in any direction, with the wind and water spray all around us – well, that not only sparked joy, it lit the whole damn fire.

Our last day we went back to the ocean. In addition to seeing an endless stream of my beloved pelicans, we also saw a big pod of dolphins, complete with little dolphin babies doing leaps and flips. But mostly we alternated swimming and sitting, as one does at the beach. I love how the beach – any beach – is so full of memories. General memories, specific memories, pleasant and not so pleasant memories – somehow all of them are good memories now. The smell of olive oil, which my father used as tanning lotion. Playing in the sand and the water with my sisters. Diving off my father’s hands into a wave. The disorientation of misjudging a wave and getting tumbled upside down and raked by sand. Singing and practicing cartwheels and handstands, both in and out of the water. Holding hands with my daughter to run and dive into the cold waves. Relaxing on the quietest beach I have ever been to with Rose, while we caught up on lost sleep after the first six months of our first adorable but exhausting puppy.

The thing about a beach is that even if it’s a beach I’ve never been to, it brings up memories of every beach I HAVE ever been to, every friend and family member I have spent beach time with, every boardwalk and arcade and cold wave and sand castle and morning donut and afternoon pizza slice, every sand dollar and conch shell and dolphin leap and pelican dive.

The thing about a beach is that even if it’s a beach I have been to a million times, it’s a brand new beach every trip, every day. No matter what kind of dredging and jetty building and sea grass planting and sand importing we humans try to do, the sea and the weather will have their way with the coastline, which changes every day – sometimes large, and sometimes small, but always changes.

The thing about the beach is the thing about life. It’s always familiar and full of memories, at the same time it’s always new and changing and completely out of my control. The joy, though – the joy is always there, when I am ready to reach for it again.

Berry Season

The blueberries are ripening already, which seems early to me – they started before it was even officially summer. Fruit in the garden is still something of a mystery to me even after twenty years of blueberries, a period of strawberries, and a yearly wild crop of wineberries.

Planting the vegetable garden was an annual event in my childhood. Compared to my current several acres of land, our yard in the city was a postage stamp, but when my father had the back porch stairs redone as a spiral staircase that didn’t extend as far into the yard as the previous straight stairway, it was like we had a whole farm back there. We would drive out to Serio’s, a garden center way out in the country past Rockville (in Olney, which now more or less a suburb of DC), and my parents would buy seeds and plants and Miracle Gro. When my oldest sister was in junior high, so I was six or seven, she went with her dance class to Syracuse and I spent some time puzzling over where they would be dancing and, more to the point since they were going for several days, where they could sleep at the garden center.

My clearest memory of the garden planting is of my mother mixing up the magic blue liquid to sprinkle on the tomato plants. At one point my parents planted strawberries, but I don’t remember them lasting for long. When the house next door changed hands, the new neighbors replaced the chain link fence with a taller wooden privacy fence and perhaps it shaded the strawberry patch too much – my vague memory is they were planted right up against the fence. I doubt I was sorry to see them go, as I was not much of a berry eater as a child. Berries had seeds, which went against my fondness for single-textured foods. Blueberries also fell in the same category as cherry tomatoes: there was always the possibility that a fine looking exterior housed a fruit that had gone bad from the inside and was just waiting to detonate when you bit into it.

Blackberries were my first berry love. I still associate them with late July and early August, the North Carolina mountains, and camp overnights. The camp I went to from the summer after sixth grade through almost all of high school was my favorite place. The blackberries were not a huge part of my time there, but we sometimes went out on overnights, my favorites being when we rode the horses out to the big pastures up the hill, turned the horses out, and slept under the stars. I have no memory of tents, and I do have memories of being woken up by being rained on, so I think all we took was sleeping bags, flashlights, and food. Food for any kind of camp trip was the most basic kid sustenance: white bread, peanut butter and jelly, bologna and American cheese and yellow mustard, KoolAid. For overnights we also took Bisquick, and we managed something I believe we called doughboys: a moldable preparation of the Bisquick surrounding blackberries we had just picked from the wooded edges of the pastures, all wrapped around a stick and cooked over the fire like a s’more. Like s’mores, there was always a chance your doughboy would fall into the flames, but it was worth the effort, even with the potential for charred bits and the need to pick stick splinters out of your breakfast. We have a few blackberry plants here now. They don’t bear much fruit these days, and the few berries that are getting started now won’t be ready for some time, but a single glorious berry can still send me right back to those summer mornings.

One of our first garden beds when we moved here had blueberries on two sides, asparagus in the middle, and strawberries in the front and crawling under everything else. I was particularly astonished by the strawberries each time they bore fruit, as I still think of strawberries as a thing you can only buy at the grocery store. Even farmers market strawberries don’t seem like the kind of thing just anybody should be able to grow at home, but grow them we did. That bed has always gotten a little wild, and over the years, the asparagus and strawberries died out. We have mock strawberries in that bed and pretty much everywhere else on our property. They look pretty but I’ve never tried to taste one. I find it suspicious that I never see any of our plentiful wildlife eating the mock strawberries, though they were certainly fond enough of taking bites out of our cultivated strawberries. If I ever see any true wild strawberries I will be delighted to try them, but I think I’ll stick to admiring the mocks with my eyes.

For the first twenty years we lived here I called the berries out back wild raspberries, and I suppose technically they are, but I learned last year that they are known as wineberries. They are even prettier than the mock strawberries, and I know for sure they are not only edible but delicious. Like any kind of raspberry they are delicate. When I pick them I always want a large flat pan so I won’t squash any, but I always take a standard bowl or bag instead. I don’t serve them in any way where their form matters, but they are so lovely I just want to treat them gently.

The blueberries, though. Our original blueberries have continued to grow, and we have added more bushes as other things have died out and made room in that bed.

My first experience enjoying blueberries – outside of reading Blueberries for Sal – was at my great-half-uncle’s house in New Hampshire. Going to visit Uncle Richard with our maternal grandmother (my grandfather was Richard’s half brother) was a bit of a rite of passage for me and my sisters in our high school years. Each of us in turn made the trip, flying to Boston and then taking the bus to Meredith or Concord where Uncle Richard would pick us up. Time in New Hampshire mostly consisted of reading, swimming, and hiking to the lake. Blueberry picking was always on the agenda: wild high bush blueberries, small and the perfect mix of sweet and tart. Uncle Richard taught me to make blueberry pie, which I love but have hardly ever made outside of his house. Grocery store berries were just never the same, and with our own berries I have made blueberry cakes, blueberry muffins, blueberry scones, blueberry smoothies, but not very often blueberry pie. I can’t say never, but I used fancier recipes than Uncle Richard’s oleo crust and just plain blueberries dusted with flour and sugar.

Richard was a relative I met in my mid-teens and saw for the last time when I was in my mid-twenties, though he lived a lot of years beyond that. My connection with him was mainly through my grandmother, who died when I was twenty, and then my aunt, who died five years before Richard. He was born in 1923, he was in the army in the 1940s, and he taught high school for forty years. We all long suspected he was gay, but it wasn’t till he was eighty that he had his first out relationship with a man, who remained his partner for the last seventeen years of his life.

Berry season is also Pride season. I’m not a big Pride celebrator myself, but it is a time of year when I think about how much things have changed in my lifetime – even in the nearly thirty years of my relationship with Rose – and I think about how unfathomable being out and partnered and content was for someone like Richard for most of his life, and how glad I am that he still got to have all of that in his lifetime. The years I saw him actively were the years of my own coming out – in fact, it was to his house in New Hampshire that I retreated when I thought I was losing my mind, before I realized that actually, I was just gay. We didn’t talk about it any more than we talked about his orientation or relationships, but somehow I knew where to go to feel ok for a little while. I’m making blueberry tarts today, not blueberry pie, and I’m sure Richard would understand why I am toasting him today with blueberries, love, and gratitude.

Home

I’m back from my first trip in a year and a half. It was nice enough to be out and about again that even the plane rides seemed nice. My fellow travelers may have felt the same since everyone was pleasant, which is not the first word I would have used for people in airports and planes the last time I flew.

I started to say that I’m home from my trip, but I was home where I was, too. Partly because I was staying in my own house, but also because I got to see two of my kids, and because I got to see good friends, and because I was in a place that has always felt like home to me, even the first time I went.

My family was not big on refrigerator magnets, but a few funny ones given as gifts accumulated over the years, mostly about wine, cats, or grammar. I think that one of them was the Robert Frost quote “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” which may have been something my sister gave my parents, but my whole memory of this may be off. Regardless, it’s how I would describe my parents’ home after I left to go to college. I moved back there for a few weeks after I left school and before I found a job with housing, but aside from a couple of holidays during college (after my first year I lived in apartments, not dorm rooms, so I didn’t have to move out during winter and summer breaks), and staying there sometimes when my father was sick and then dying, I didn’t go back to stay. I lived close enough to visit for a meal, but far enough to make that inconvenient to do often.

I would also, as I just did, describe it as “my parents’ home.” Partly because where they lived by the time I moved back to the general area where I grew up was not a place I ever lived with them, and partly because, well, it wasn’t my home. At that time in my life, in my early twenties, I lived in a house on the farm where I worked, and had parents and a sister who lived in houses in the city where I grew up less than two hours away, but I didn’t have a heart home. My high school friends were mostly no longer living in the area. I had just left college, and my friends there. I pretty well ran away from that place and those people in an effort to get away from the inside of my head, which inconveniently came along with me. An excellent idea for me then would have been therapy, but that wasn’t even on my radar. A few years later I would find it was much less difficult to tell my mother that I had a girlfriend than to tell her I had a therapist.

Where I live now is very much home. Though it is a place that was once also home for my kids, I know they all have their own places they call home now, and this house is that awkward combination of “mom’s house” and “that place where I lived through everything I had to live through as a teenager” and whatever else our dwellings from the past come to mean to us. It’s hard to go back to a place where the very smells and sounds seem to suck you back into playing a role that never really fit and that you don’t have to play in your adult life. I love it when my kids visit, but I think even more I love to go see them in their current lives where they are their current selves.

It’s thirty years later than when I had a homeless heart, and now I have a heart home made up of a lot of parts. Rose, our kids. Dogs, horses, cats. Places that I love. Myself. That’s probably the biggest change from my early twenties: whevever I go, there I am has a whole different meaning now. If I don’t carry my home on my back, I carry it in my heart, and I can make the shelter I need out of the tools I have available wherever I am.

Horse of a Different Color

I got my start with horses in a world of “make them do it” horsemanship. I heard a lot about making the horse respect the rider. Crops and whips were used as both aids and punishment. Side reins were used to hold the horse’s head in position, and there was a lot of talk about driving aids, pushing the horse into the contact, and setting the hands. Any reluctance or unresponsiveness by the horse was to be met with a sharper or secondary aid to get the desired response NOW.

For nearly my first thirty years of riding, that was my foundation. Over time I moved away from a lot of the harsher components of it, but like many of the people I grew up watching and learning from, I remained quick to frustration and anger when things didn’t go the way I wanted or expected with a horse. For the past almost twenty years, I’ve been learning from people who have a different approach to horses, one that is more relationship-based than demand-based. When I started actively learning a softer way with horses and that anger came up, I directed most of it at myself, for my inability to just stop reacting that way. The horses didn’t care much who I was mad at; they just knew that I was mad, and that the energy I was projecting wasn’t safe to be around.

When I was in my early twenties, I read a book by a respected animal behaviorist who was also a respected trainer of dogs and horses. When she died in 2001, the New York Times obituary referred to her as someone “who saw human traits in pets,” which was not how scientists were supposed to think then (it probably still isn’t). She was much more aware than most trainers and scientists of the time of animals having intellect and emotions, and what she called a moral sense. As a trainer, she also wrote about being given “crazy” horses or dogs to work with and acting crazier than they did so that they had to pay attention to her. At the time, as something of a specialist myself in “crazy” horses (i.e. the horses I usually got a chance to work with when I couldn’t afford a horse that had decent or no training), this made sense to me. Now, it does not. For me, anyway, this approach was just another variant of the old methods: obedience, discipline, correction. Even well-intentioned trainers still use language like this.

I’ve been thinking a lot about why we deal with horses this way. When “I say, you do, and do it NOW” is the expectation, what’s behind that? Far more often than I ever want to admit, it’s about fear. “I say, you do” feels like it keeps me in control. I think there’s a human belief that if we are afraid of something, and we can make that something or someone afraid of us instead, we will be safe. We can try to convince the horse that we are scary enough for it not to hurt us – without going so far that we convince it we are scary enough to attack. Horses are flight animals, but if given no choice, they will fight. When we are afraid, we make bad (and sometimes dangerous) decisions. When we are afraid and we don’t want to admit to or show our fear, we make even worse (and more dangerous) decisions.

Recently my wise friend, horsewoman Anna Blake, posted a brilliant blog in which she said “Level ground is needed for trust. In the beginning, it feels like chaos to breathe instead of intimidating.” I don’t want any kind of tattoo, let alone one with a whole lot of words in it (ouch!), but that sounds like a good choice so that I can look at those words every day. What does it feel like to put myself on level ground with someone or something I believe can hurt me? What does it look like for me to pause, breathe, and choose my next action with deliberation and kindness, instead of reacting in fear and anger? What happens if I start by extending trust, instead of withholding it?

Also: none of this is about horses.

And Then There Were Two

I have a collection of partially written blog posts that I may or may not get around to finishing. It seems that instead of taking notes these days I sometimes start a blog – maybe with a photo, or a title, or a sentence, or a paragraph, on the theory that I will remember later what I wanted to say. There’s one that only has a title – Layers – which I hope was going to be about more than cake, but maybe cake is enough. There’s one called Cat Dog which has two photos of my first dog when she assigned herself to be the parent of the then brand new kitten, Pigwidgeon, but the only sentence in it is about my mother, who was far more cat than dog. Maybe it was going to be about being a dog child raised by a cat mom, though for the first forty or so years of my life I would have said I was a cat person. There’s one called Eggs, which begins with this paragraph: “I’ve been thinking about eggs. Actually I’ve been eating a lot of eggs, and noticing that every time I crack open an egg, I think of my mother. Not in a symbolic, mother-daughter, mysteries of the feminine kind of way, either. In particular, I think of cracking, and then beating, what felt like thousands of eggs, during the Meringue Years.” A few sentences later, it ends in the middle of a word (“Quite possibl” is where I stopped, having used up my day’s quota of not only words but letters, I guess).

Many of my partial posts started with something from my childhood, and those shards of childhood memory are on my mind a lot lately, as are my parents and my two older sisters. I have very few memories of events of any significance from before I was ten, but I can perfectly describe the dented stock pot we used to make both pasta and fudge (not at the same time). I can tell you about the time when the crabs (aka dinner) escaped under the kitchen stove, though the fact of it is all I remember, and not the method of escape or rescue, if “rescue” is a word that can apply when the rescued end up in a pot of boiling water. I can tell you general facts about each person. For example, my father used olive oil as tanning lotion, and we used to have to keep him out of the kitchen while making spaghetti sauce so he wouldn’t sneak in and add so much hot pepper that no one else would be able to eat it, and he often made oblique requests (“A beer would be nice”), and it was next to impossible to tell when he was joking.

As the youngest of three sisters spanning a seven year age difference, I probably have the vaguest memories of the times we were all together. My oldest sister had the most and the clearest memories, partly by virtue of being the oldest, but mostly because she had perfect recall of all names, dates, events, and relationships, plus every fact she ever read or learned. She would always be the person I would ask for birthdates, who was married to whom, how we were related to someone, or when a particular vacation or trip to the circus took place. I’m always interested in the things family members remember differently, or don’t remember at all. She seemed to remember everything, and I don’t think any of us would ever have questioned her. I have a collection of photo albums in my basement from my aunt and my grandmother, and no one to ask who is in them.

My maternal grandfather died before I was born, and my maternal grandmother when I was in college. My paternal grandfather was not a part of my father’s life, and I was never close to his mother and stepfather, both of whom also died when I was in college or soon after. My uncle died when I was in high school, my mother when I was in my late 30s, and my father and my aunt died within two weeks of each other seven years after that. One day my sisters and I and our three cousins were the kids, and the next day we were the older generation. It’s the normal order of things, but it happened all at once and before any of us had really thought to prepare for that particular fact. I think it’s safe to say the last thing I expected then was that one of us – my oldest sister – would die five years later. I’m still not sure I believe it.

I spoke to my sister – I still want to specify which one, though it’s just the two of us now – yesterday. I used to envy how close my mother and my aunt were as adults. For a lot of years my sisters and I got secondhand information about each other through our parents, which works kind of like social media where you can keep up with someone’s life without actually making an effort to communicate with them. There’s a lot to a sister relationship: the years we lived in the same house, the years we fought, the years we were best friends, the years we didn’t speak, the places our lives connect and the places they don’t at all, the things we know about each other that no one else knows, and the things we will never know about each other. My mother and my aunt got closer after my uncle’s death, and still more after my grandmother’s death. It never really occurred to me that their closeness might in part have been because they were all the family each other had left, the only two people still there to hold on to – or argue about – the memories.

Harbingers

The tundra swans are here! This is our sixth year seeing them, and while I don’t know what caused them to add us to their migration path 15 years into our time here, I am always grateful. Uncharacteristically, they showed up during a period of bad weather this year. I have long suspected they know just how good they look against a bright blue sky, and in fact they seem put out by the gloomy, wet weather we’ve been having. Normally during their time here, they go to other bodies of water during the day and return to our reservoir at night, but they have mostly spent the rainy weekend grumbling along the edge of the ice on the reservoir and not flying at all.

We have enormous numbers of Canada geese who inhabit the reservoir year-round, and they are not fans of the swans, who are the only birds I know that make the geese look small. The first year or two the swans came here, the geese would circle and circle over the reservoir, sometimes returning to one of their daytime ponds for the night, and sometimes landing as far from the swans as possible. They spent the nights they were here grumbling about the tourists, while the swans made their own odd calls that I can best describe as what it would have sounded like if Mr. Rochester had also had mad geese locked in his attic. This year, as almost always, it was their voices that tipped me off to their arrival. They came after dark on Friday night, and when I took the dogs out for last pee, they all stopped in their tracks and looked at me like “What the hell, mom?” which seems a reasonable response to unexpected swans. The geese seem resigned now, but it will likely be a few more days before we see them actively mingling with the swans. It’s warming up and the ice is melting, which means more water space for everyone to keep to their own species.

The swans come by during the first half of March each year, but what they find when they arrive varies quite a bit. If the winter has been mild, or if it has warmed up already, the whole reservoir will be water. If it’s been a cold winter or if the cold is lingering later, most of it may be ice. They seem unfazed either way, sometimes gathering on the ice and sometimes paddling serenely through the water, no matter the temperature. The ground at this time of year is almost always terrible. This year we have had more snow than we have had for a few years, and it’s lingering in both slushy and icy swaths. The horse pastures are a muddy, manure-filled mess, and (as is true every year) look like they will never recover. Mud is the unifying theme – sucking off our boots, changing the colors of the horses, coming in the house on the dogs, making everything we can see a drab brown – not that different than the colors of the Canada goose, come to think of it. It matches my mood almost exactly.

My excitement about the swans is a mixture of the beauty of their bright white plumage in the sea of mud, the novelty of these very short-term visitors, and the indication that spring really is coming. The swans usually arrive before the first crocus blooms. The snowdrops are just getting started, so the crocuses and the Carolina bluebells won’t be far behind. I confess I don’t think very much about the first sign of the change of any season except winter into spring. Spring into summer just seems to happen. Summer into fall is heralded by the first change of leaf color – usually the deceptive beauty of a bright red poison ivy vine climbing a tree I should avoid – followed quickly by sadness and a sense of time passing too fast. Fall into winter is only rarely a snowy event around here, but snow is what I think of when I think of winter. This year the snow didn’t come until February, but it feels like it’s been snowing for all 17 weeks that February feels like it has lasted. It took very little time to go from “I can’t wait for it to snow!” to “Is it EVER going to stop snowing?” I had not realized quite how much of the magic of a good snowstorm is the shutting down of all regular activities. When so many regular activities are already shut down, it’s hard to notice much of a difference. Plus there’s no such thing as a snow day from work when everyone is already working from home.

My normal eagerness for signs of spring has an added frantic edge to it this year. I long for warmer weather, for green pastures instead of brown, for fresh vegetables from the garden, for sun on my skin. I also long for travel, for seeing and hugging my kids, for new experiences, for live music. I hate crowds, but right now I would dearly love the shared experience of singing along with a stadium full of people to songs we all know and love. I feel like this winter has lasted a full year, and like it’s never going to end. I’m not a believer that “back to normal” is a thing, partly because I’m not really a believer in “normal,” but also because I sincerely hope we have all learned some things about what we can keep doing and what we really have to change. In the midst of this ongoing and season-spanning year of the unknown, I’m grateful to the swans for reminding me that the seasons really do keep changing and that some things – good things, beautiful things – remain the same.

Tall, Dark and Handsome

I’m sure there’s a joke to be had about how I like my male horses – tall, dark and handsome, yes, but also – gelded? troubled? – but what I do know is that the geldings I have picked as riding horses tend to have a lot in common. The three I have chosen have been bay with strong black points, similar height, and with no interest in the job they were trained to do before I met them.

Soldier was a thoroughbred trained to foxhunt. I got him as a lease-to-sell project, with the intent of training him as an event horse. As it turned out, a horse who will run and jump with a group of other horses does not necessarily have any interest in jumping when he is alone on a cross country course, and a horse who has only ever seen natural fences on the hunt course may not have any idea what to do with painted jumps in an arena. His approach to a stadium jumping course went something like this: gallop towards the first fence, screech to a halt, take off from all four feet at once, land on all four feet on the other side, bolt to the next fence and repeat. After it became clear he would never be an eventer at even the lowest level (Super Chicken, they call it locally, or Ever Green), his owner sent him back out on a foxhunt with an interested buyer who Soldier promptly dumped and nearly put in the hospital. He eventually found his way to a great home with a woman who wanted mostly to do dressage and trail ride.

Wy came along about 5 years after Soldier. His full name was Wy’East, the native name of Mount Hood, the highest peak in Oregon where his breeder was from. He had been bred and trained to be a dressage horse (his breeder had dreams of him taking her to the Olympics) but was deemed neither sound nor sane enough for that job. That put him squarely in my equine specialty of what a friend once dubbed “the lame and the insane.” His first owner was my dressage instructor at the time she had him up for sale. When I rode him for the first time in a lesson with her I wound up on the ground pretty quickly, as his riders often did. I don’t remember landing, but I do remember getting up and saying “You son of a bitch, get back here” as I went to get him from the other side of the indoor arena. His owner, used to people sitting on the ground and crying after coming off him, agreed to sell him to me on a payment plan.

I had no designs on Wy as a dressage horse, and I let him show me what he was interested in, which was mostly trail riding, though he also loved jumping tiny fences as if they were Puissance walls. With the pressure off he got a lot saner, but he didn’t get any sounder, and I still had vague ideas at that time about having a horse I could compete in some discipline. I decided that he might be happier in a home where all the person wanted to do was trail ride, so I sold him to a nice man who wanted just that.

Several years after I sold Wy, and several farms after the last one where he had lived with us, we were house hunting again, looking for a place for us and our three mares. We were thinking about a house that had the right amount of land, but the land was mostly wooded. While we investigated how much it would cost to turn woods into pasture, we looked at barns where we might keep the horses in the interim.

There was a good sized boarding farm close to the woodland house. We arranged to visit, and the owner – something of a cowboy in the middle of hunter/jumper, eventer, and foxhunter territory – showed us around while we told him about our mares. I was explaining about my slutty thoroughbred mare Trappe, and telling stories on her mare-in-heat behavior, when I said “Of course, that was when we still had Wy.” The cowboy said “You had a horse named Wy? We have a horse here named Wy.” I said “Is it ‘Y’ as in the letter Y, or ‘Why’ as in ‘Why Did I Buy This Horse?'” He said he didn’t know; the owner just called him Wy, or sometimes Beast. Even though Wy’s most common nickname when I had him was Wy Beast, I still didn’t make the connection. “He’s a big, bay Hanoverian gelding,” said the cowboy as he pointed behind me. This finally sunk in, and I turned around and saw my horse looking at me over the fence of his paddock. I ran over to him and he buried his big head in my chest.

Wy had come to this farm through two different owners after he got sick while with the guy I sold him to. The diagnosis by the time I saw him was possibly EPM (equine protozoal myeloencephalitis), but no one was really sure. Some kind of degenerative neurological condition, definitely. He was not rideable, and his owner was trying to decide what to do next. I wasn’t sure what to do next either. I did nothing for about two weeks, and then one Sunday I woke up and said to Rose, “I had a dream about Wy last night and he told me to come get him. I want to go back to the farm to see him.” When we got to the farm I told the cowboy about my dream, and he looked at me like I was a little nuts, which I had expected. I said “I know it sounds weird” and he interrupted me and said “No, I don’t think it’s weird at all – it’s just that his owner just had the vet out yesterday and he said there’s nothing else they can do and she was asking if I knew how to reach you to talk about having you take him back.”

Wy came home to us and the three mares he had lived with before, though at a different farm. When we first put him out in the field with them, he spent a couple of days with a look on his face like “I had the weirdest dream – but here we all are together so I guess it really was a dream.” The mares – especially the slutty thoroughbred – were thrilled to have him back. We didn’t buy the woodland house, but we did buy the house where we live now. By that time we had acquired one more filly and we also had a foal on the way. They all lived at our vet’s farm for a few months while we put in fence and a barn here, and then they came home.

Less than two months after we brought the horses home, Wy had gone downhill enough that we had to put him down. He couldn’t reliably stand up without his knees buckling, and he walked like an old drunk man. With Trappe standing close at all times and trying to prop him up, I was worried that I would come home to find them both on the ground with her squashed beneath him. Our vet, who hadn’t seen Wy since he came home to us, took one look and said “You know you don’t have a choice about this, right?” which, true or not, was what I needed to hear. We buried Wy near the barn, and everyone that drives onto our property drives by his grave. A year after we buried him, an acorn sprouted in the middle of his grave, and that oak tree is now about 30 feet tall.

Wy left a lot of legacies. One of them is one of our family mantras: “Don’t pick up the reins.” It took me until the second time I came off of him to realize how he got people off so consistently. He would wait until his rider had a good hold of the reins, and then he would duck his giant head down between his knees and pull the rider off balance, and then he’d throw in a buck with a twist and off the rider would pop. The thing was, he always had something a little off in his back and hind end, and his buck really was not that athletic. I discovered that if, when he put his head down, I let go of the reins, he could buck all he wanted and it would not unseat me. It was that rein yank that created the problem. It became something Rose and I would say any time anyone verbally tried to knock us off balance in an argument – don’t pick up the reins and you won’t find yourself getting into a fight.

Finn is a legacy of Wy’s. I’m sure it’s no coincidence how much they look alike, or that Finn was another horse that someone tried to turn in to a dressage horse when he neither understood what was being asked of him nor was he interested in it. I don’t know that I would have brought Finn home if I hadn’t known Wy, and I don’t think I would have listened to him as much as I have when he tells me what he does and does not want to do and what he can and can’t handle. I still needed some reminders, like the first time I asked Finn to trot and he said “I can’t” and I mistook that for “I need some encouragement” rather than “I really can’t do that right now.” I said “Come on, you can do it!” and then I was up in the air looking down at his back, and then I was on the ground with him looking down at me with a look that said “I told you I can’t and I really meant it.” I got up, dropped my pants to get the sand out of my underwear, pulled myself together, and got back on with a different attitude. Finn is the Truth Serum Horse in his own right, but I know how to listen to him because of Wy.

Wy’s biggest legacy for me is to pay attention and to trust my gut. I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that we went to look at one house so that we’d meet the realtor who took us to see another house that was the reason we went to look at the barn where I found the horse and was able to bring him home. Life doesn’t always run in straight lines, but I find that if I just keep moving forward – and if I don’t pick up the reins to try to control something I have no business trying to control in the first place – I end up where I need to be.

Three Little Words

A friend recently reminded me of Gordon Lightfoot, which reminded me of one of my favorite guitarists, Tony Rice, and one of my favorite albums of his, Tony Rice Sings Gordon Lightfoot. To share this with my friend I pulled up YouTube to pick a song from that album, and settled on I’m Not Saying.

My sister and I often listened to the double record set Gord’s Gold in high school, and this song was one of our favorites. For quite a few years we borrowed from it when we wrote letters to each other (remember letters?) – one of us would sign “I’m not saying that I love you” and the other would reply in the next letter by signing “I’m not saying that I care if you love me.”

“I love you” is not something we said in our family. It wasn’t until I went to college and heard other people talking to their parents on the phone that I realized that many – perhaps most – people I knew ended phone calls to their parents by saying “I love you.” The Gordon Lightfoot song was both a joke and the closest we came to actually saying the words within our own family.

My grandmother had a dresser drawer filled with drawings we made when visiting her, and letters or cards we wrote when we were young. Almost all were just signed “From” and then our name. Often our whole name, as in “From Tessa Pagones” in penmanship one step away from writing half the letters backwards. My whole family has always talked easily about literature, politics, movies. We have not ever been given to talking about personal things, closely held thoughts and beliefs, or feelings. Especially feelings.

When I started, at age 19, to say “I love you” when getting off the phone with my parents, my father started to begin his conversations with me by picking up the phone and saying “Love me!” It would be another 19 years and my mother would be dead before I heard him say “I love you.”

When my sisters and I we were kids we never had a Christmas tree, and one thing we all agreed on was that as soon as we had our own places, we would have our own Christmas trees. The three of us had varied ideas about what “normal” kid things our kids should get that we did not have: piano lessons, swimming lessons, band or orchestra practice, the chance to fill up on bread at a restaurant if they wanted to, and definitely a Christmas tree. I don’t know, if anyone had asked, that any of us would have said “A house where people say “I love you,” but it was something we all created. Probably in all cases (certainly in mine) with the help of one or more other parents who say it more easily.

My kids say “I love you” easily, even to each other. There are a lot of moments as a parent that make you marvel at your kids for how like you they are, how different from you or each other they are, how they have some talent that seems to have come out of thin air and is unique to them. Hearing my kids say “I love you” to their siblings is something that will always make me feel a little bit of awe.